Steve Stephens More Content Now
BARSTOW, California — The “Mother Road” today is old, wrinkled, slow and missing a lot of vital parts. Officially, it’s dead, supplanted by the more-efficient, less-interesting interstates long ago.
But like Elvis, Route 66 can never really die, at least in the hearts of its fans.
Celebrated in song, on television, in films and in the memories of nostalgic travelers of a certain age, Route 66 stretched from “from Chicago to L.A.,” opening up the grandeur and scenic wonder of the American West to thousands of motorists beginning in the late 1920s.
Out in the Mojave Desert, a few more-or-less preserved stretches can be found in the vicinity of Barstow, 100 miles from the road’s old western terminus at the Pacific Ocean.
My exploration started in Victorville at the California Route 66 Museum, a great place to see some interesting mementos and pick up souvenirs, maps and information.
The old route is discontinuous and mostly unmarked, so having a good Route 66 map or guidebook is important — and handy for learning about the old attractions, many of them now nothing more than picturesque ruins.
Happily, a 35-mile continuous stretch of the old road still links Victorville with Barstow, allowing me to get into a Route 66 mood behind the wheel. I never built up much momentum, though. After all, a big reason for cruising Route 66 is exploring the interesting roadside sights.
I zipped by the first spot noted in my guiding pamphlets: Turquoise-colored cinder-block Emma Jean’s Holland Burger Cafe, which was built in the 1940s, making it the oldest restaurant in Victorville. It was too early in the day for me to stop in for the famous Brian Burger, but the packed parking lot indicated plenty of other customers, including some driving classic cars — Route 66 buffs, no doubt.
My first stop was at the little town of Oro Grande to explore a pile of old, colorfully painted buildings now housing an antiques mall.
Just down the highway, I made a pit stop at the Iron Hog Saloon, an iconic site with plenty of trippy Route 66 nostalgia, classic (more or less) automobiles and a shrine to the late motorcycle daredevil Evel Knievel (because, why not?).
Next up was Barstow, a sizable city with plenty of restaurants, motels and other travel services. These days, most motorists arrive via Interstates 40 or 15, but once upon a time, it was Route 66, which ran smack dab down Barstow’s Main Street, that brought everyone to town.
The town’s Route 66 Mother Road Museum, like the museum down the road in Victorville, features mementos of the old highway, including classic cars, an exhibit with items from old service stations and information about the route’s development and eventual decline.
Heading east from Barstow required a short jaunt on I-40 before the old route again was passable.
Traffic became very sparse near the little Mojave Desert town of Daggett. Numbered signs marked several old historic buildings, some of them abandoned and falling into disrepair. A guide to Daggett’s historical buildings can be found at the Route 66 museums and online.
My next stop was Newberry Springs and the Bagdad Cafe, where much of the 1987 movie of the same name was filmed. Although I was the only customer in the place, cook Gilbert Blancaflor assured me that the colorful desert cafe is not always so ghostly and often bustles with visitors who come from everywhere looking for a bit of the old Route 66 magic.
“I don’t have to go out and see the world; the world comes to see me,” Blancaflor said.
I followed, more or less, the route of the old highway through the desert for the next 35 miles, occasionally over long stretches of cracked or broken pavement, stopping at interesting ruins, faded signs and other evidence of long-ago commerce.
There wasn’t much human activity remaining until I reached the few businesses still huddled in the town of Ludlow, which has an interchange with I-40, helping it to hang on.
At the Ludlow Cafe, the pie looked promising, but the waitress warned me away.
“We usually have the best pie anywhere,” she said. But the pie business had been slow, lately.
“This is old,” she said. “I served a stale piece of pie 15 years ago. Never again.”
I thanked her for her old-time, apple-pie honesty, ordered a coffee to go and plowed ahead, sans pie, until I reached the vicinity of Amboy.
Like other towns on the way, Amboy fell on hard times when I-40 bypassed it in the 1960s and Route 66 became a ghost road. Roy’s Cafe and Motel, which dates to 1938, was no exception. But the return of nostalgic or curious motorists has boosted business a bit.
Roy’s and its huge, iconic, retro Space Age sign have recently been restored, and the business now caters to the small but steady stream of Route 66 fans who make a point of stopping in and gassing up.
It was an encouraging point at which to leave the Mother Road, which was closed for many miles ahead.
I headed back to the oh-so-practical interstate. I made much better time, sure. But I’d found more kicks on Route 66.
— Steve Stephens can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter @SteveStephens.